Three Guerrilla Marketing Strategies to Attract and Retain Members

Turn to no-cost or low-cost methods to increase your return on investment.

By Lauren Bedosky
Feb 24, 2017

If you’re a fitness facility owner, manager or personal trainer, chances are you’ve chosen to work in the health and fitness field because you want to make a difference in people’s lives. Everyday business to-dos like marketing can seem self-serving and a distraction from the work you’d rather be doing. In reality, however, marketing is a critical service you provide to prospective clients. How else will they find the facility that’s right for them? Don’t think your marketing has to be sleazy! Done right, guerrilla marketing in particular is a great approach for attracting clients organically, without resorting to in-your-face billboards or irksome salespeople.

A guerrilla marketing strategy is a no-cost or low-cost activity that generates leads or sales. “You can have a successful guerrilla marketing campaign with a local psychotherapist who refers two people a month because she or he feels that exercising would be good for them emotionally,” says Casey Conrad, president of Communication Consultants WBS Inc., a worldwide health and fitness consulting firm based in Wakefield, Rhode Island.

According to Conrad, fitness facilities have always used guerrilla marketing strategies and have traditionally relied on low-maintenance, high-exposure methods like car plasters, door hangers and lead boxes. But when the U.S. economy collapsed in 2008 and facilities were struggling to keep their doors open, facility owners had to be more strategic about whom they targeted and where they spent their money. As a result, they adopted more sophisticated guerrilla marketing strategies.

“Now,” Conrad says, “most clubs struggle to even find ways to spend their marketing dollars, simply because the way we used to market just doesn’t work anymore.”

That’s not to say that the more traditional marketing strategies—direct mail campaigns, print and television advertisements and the like—won’t get results. However, compared with guerrilla marketing tactics, their return on investment isn’t even close. “Guerrilla marketing activities cost you pennies on the dollar, while traditional marketing costs thousands,” Conrad says. “And, in today’s highly competitive space, where most people don’t notice traditional marketing, guerrilla marketing can get just as many responses without the risk.”

Whether you’re new or established, the following guerrilla marketing strategies will help you attract and retain more members.

Find a Local Partner

The most effective guerrilla marketing strategies often include quality relationships with local businesses and/or residents. “It’s in that relationship that you’re actually going to see the most positive results,” says Conrad, “because these businesses are owned by locals who have a high level of concern about the local economy.”

Conrad worked with one fitness facility that employed a simple yet wildly effective guerrilla marketing tactic: partnering with a local dry cleaner. Dry-cleaning customers are ideal prospects for fitness facilities, Conrad explains. “They’re professionals who have to go to work on a daily basis, and they want to be able to fit into their nice, dry-cleaned clothes.” Similarly, health club members are ideal prospects for a local dry cleaner.

In the instance Conrad cites, on top of all the coat hangers the dry cleaner placed the equivalent of a door hanger advertising the fitness facility. Customers picked up their clothes with the added piece of advertisement. The relationship became so successful that the fitness facility’s owner eventually set up a dry-cleaning drop-off and pickup box in the fitness facility.
The advantage of using a takeaway like a door hanger—as opposed to setting up an information table for one day—is that the takeaway item offers a consistent flow of exposure throughout the month. “What’s going to happen,” Conrad explains, “is that, over time, that top-of-mind awareness will create an impression, so that when [potential clients are] ready to start exercising, hopefully your name comes to mind.”

However, if you want a successful relationship, be ready to reciprocate for whatever exposure you get. For example, you can’t place lead boxes at local businesses without offering something in return. The businesses may agree to it at first, but after a while they’ll grow tired of giving up that counter space if they aren’t reaping benefits.

For fitness facility owners who are interested in partnering with a local business, Conrad offers the following tips:

Match their clientele. If your membership is pricey, you won’t get a lot of leads from businesses that cater to college students. Similarly, if your facility is geared toward bargain hunters, a boutique running store may not be the best target. “You want to get the most bang for the time invested in the relationship,” Conrad says.

Include some give and take. Approach these relationships symbiotically. How can you help local businesses in return for their willingness to generate exposure for you?

Skip the chains. Look for owner-operated businesses as opposed to large corporate chains. Local businesses will have more authority and autonomy to enter into a relationship, while corporate businesses have to contend with a lot of red tape.

Use Facebook to Keep Their Attention

Pat Rigsby, fitness business consultant and owner of Virtual Fitness Mastermind, in Louisville, Kentucky, has seen many fitness facilities and personal trainers successfully harness the power of social media to connect with potential members. “Facebook has given us a user-friendly platform to do this,” he says.

One tactic Rigsby recommends—particularly for personal trainers—is to create real-time Facebook Live videos. This is a free and convenient way for facilities and trainers to give potential or current clients a chance to see the faces behind the business. And to promote the Live mechanism, Facebook is regularly showing those types of videos in users’ feeds.

The videos could offer quick fitness or nutrition tips, present motivational stories and case studies or answer frequently asked questions. The key is to deliver content that is valuable to the target audience and allows the personality of the trainer or business to shine through. In an industry as personal as health and fitness, it’s critical to let prospective clients get to know the facility and trainers before stepping inside the facility.

Rigsby has also seen clients establish themselves as local thought leaders by sharing valuable information with their communities through a free, private Facebook group. Like the Facebook Live videos, posts to the group could offer fitness or nutrition advice, showcase relevant news articles and occasionally make offers.

These social media strategies are effective because they provide opportunities for consistent interaction. “So much of marketing is getting people’s attention in the first place and then maintaining their attention long enough for them to figure out if you’re the right fit for them,” Rigsby says.

Connect Through Charity

One of Rigsby’s favorite guerrilla marketing approaches is to host a workout for a local charity. This works best for fitness facilities that have an established customer base, as they can use this network to their advantage.

While different facilities may take different approaches, a tried-and-true formula is to find a local charity that facility members can get excited about. Tell your members that, for every guest they bring in, you will donate $10 to a nonprofit organization. This way, members can approach their networks with a small ask. “They’re just saying, ‘Hey, come hang out with us for 45 minutes. Our gym’s owner is going to donate this workout to a good cause,’” Rigsby explains.

To make this method work even better, make a personal connection. Does one of your members have breast cancer? Dedicate the workout to her, and announce that all proceeds will go to an organization that funds breast cancer research. Not only will that member be motivated to invite as many guests as possible, but other members will connect with the workout on a deeper level as well.

While hosting a charity workout will cost you money, it’s inexpensive compared with traditional marketing approaches like direct mail and radio ads. And the positive impression you’ll make on attendees will go a long way toward encouraging them to commit to your gym.

“It sets your business apart because [you’re] giving back to the clients,” says Rigsby. “You’re supporting what’s important to them.”

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Lauren Bedosky

Lauren Bedosky is a Minneapolis-based health and fitness writer. She writes for a variety of trade and consumer magazines, which include RunnerÔÇÖs World and Experience Life. She can be reached at [email protected]

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